The Way of Tea

A yunomi by Jim Malone. A painted motif over a traditional hakeme slip decoration.

A cup of tea isn’t a simple matter, at least not to serious tea drinkers! Tea is as rich and intricate a subject as wine is for those who choose to investigate it and delve a little deeper below the surface. Drinking tea is inextricably linked with the whole eastern culture – mixture of the two principles of wabi and sabi. ‘Wabi’ is a word which denotes the spiritual aspect of life, characterised by simplicity, restraint and unadorned beauty. ‘Sabi’ represents the imperfections of life and the natural way of things in the outside world. For me, the tea bowl plays an important part in the appreciation of tea, a way of engaging with the cultural activity of the tea ceremony. By drinking from a tea bowl, or chawan, I feel spiritually connected, more relaxed and in-tune with myself.

A karatsu chawan from the momoyama period 

In fact, to be precise, chawan is the name given to tea bowls used in formal tea ceremonies; for everyday drinking the Japanese use yunomi. But whatever they’re called there is something inherently satisfying about using them. I’m not suggesting that everyone have a tea ceremony each time they have a cuppa, but by taking time out to relax, prepare the tea carefully and drink out of something beautiful they are participating in something transcendent and numinous.

Of course, I don’t use a tea bowl every time I have a cup of tea, but there is something infinitely pleasurable about drinking from an attractive well-made vessel. I do try to have a relaxing cup of tea at least once a day; using my favourite oolong tea, preparing it carefully using a tea pot, infusing it for the correct length of time and finally drinking from a tea bowl.

In the studio tea bowls figure quite highly on my list of vessels to make, although most customers still prefer mugs with handles to drink from. Personally, I think the fact that there isn’t a handle on a tea bowl seems to give the act of drinking from it a more sacred quality; it’s easier to cup the hands around it in an almost supplicatory way. The heat of the tea is easier to feel, and one is aware of a ‘closeness’ to the flavour and aroma of the liquid. In making tea bowls I rarely use a gauge (though I do weigh out the lumps of clay) and, keeping the wheelhead turning a little slower than usual I allow each bowl to take its own form. In that way I feel I am putting something of myself in the vessel – it becomes more of an individual item. I’m not bothered about making it ‘perfect’. I’m happy with whatever comes off the wheel, as long as it has character and feeling. A few uneven blemishes I can live with.

Grey teabowl by Ken Matsuzaki.

I urge all tea drinkers to try having their own personal ‘tea ceremony’ once a day, drinking their favourite tea from a chawan or yunomi, taking time to relax and chill out for at least a few minutes. Try it for a week at see what happens!

Wabi-Sabi

Jim Malone tea bowl
A tea bowl by Jim Malone. I admire the simple, contemplative nature of his work.

As a potter and painter you can’t help but evaluate the work of other artists. It’s second nature that when you see a pot, sculpture or painting, particularly by someone you admire, the mind begins to scrutinise the way in which the article has been made or decorated. This isn’t a bad thing, of course. Mentally running through the process of how you would have made it, how you could incorporate such a technique into your own work, and just appreciating the beauty of the thing is always beneficial. What I am trying not to do is automatically dismiss work that I think is poor or don’t like. There should be some reason for my opinion and getting to the bottom of that – in the same way as evaluating stuff that I do like – is as much a part of improving my work as assimilating influences of artists I admire.

I was shopping yesterday and saw some drinking mugs which I quite liked. They were unusual in that they were a little different from the kind of stuff you see in there – Mister Men mugs and floral stuff in pastel glazes. These had been half-dipped with a reactive glaze, something like a chun, on the outside, the lower half covered with a darker matt glaze. The inside was completely covered with the reactive glaze. They were nicely done but I felt the attractive chun effect would be lost when tea or coffee was poured into them. How would I have done them differently? Would I have used the same colours? What glazes would I have used on the inside instead? My partner, Amanda, also pointed out also that the handles were too big for a woman’s fingers. They were too masculine and needed something a little less chunky and more elegant. However, I wasn’t too bothered about criticising and dismissing a factory made pot; no art had gone into the making of this machine-made item and I wasn’t hurting anyone’s feelings by condemning it.

In the run-up to the opening of the studio I’ve been immersing myself in the work of potters that I particularly admire: Shoji Hamada, Bernard Leach, Jim Malone, Sandy Brown et al. Trying to distill what it is I like about all of these artists is difficult. Why do I like these and not others? With most of the aforementioned potters it is their simplicity that attracts and their own embracing of imperfections. The Japanese call this wabi-sabi, which comes from the Bhuddist principle of aesthetics, an appreciation of austerity, modesty, economy and one might even say roughness. The rustic simplicity, freshness and quietness of such work is, for me, something to be aspired to. The anomalies and individualities that occur in the throwing and glazing processes are part and parcel of the beauty and serenity of pottery. One might say even a spirituality; there is definitely something transcendent about the act of throwing a pot that one might describe as approaching that state of mind. This is not to say that wabi-sabi is about being happy with whatever comes off the wheel. I’m not suggesting we accept work that is fundamentally flawed, but in striving towards perfection we should accept the individualties of our creations. This attitude is one of the principles underlying the Japanese concept of mingei or folk art.

Shoji Hamada pot
A pot by Shoji Hamada encapsulating everything that is wabi-sabi.

Shoji Hamada was famously quoted as saying that ‘making pottery should not be like climbing a mountain, it should be more like walking down a hill in a pleasant breeze’. Anyone who has lost themselves in the act of throwing will know what I mean. The stillness and contemplation of the creation of pottery is much like the enjoyment Hamada alludes to.